“Being the vanguard of ice cream has vanquished its radical sensation.”

I have a favorite local pub that specializes in offering a wide variety of craft beers that rotate weekly – they have dozens of taps and whenever I go there’s always a couple beers on special I’ve never heard of.  Let’s just say, it’s not the kind of place you order a Budweiser.  But I was surprised when they stopped serving Guinness to focus their selection toward offering unique flavors from a variety of breweries.  As an American pub, Guinness still seems exotic enough to offer, right?

I didn’t want to order Guiness that night and I have never ordered it there before, in fact I barely noticed it was absent from the list. Yet I was still surprised and annoyed that they wouldn’t offer the “classic” or “go-to” stout. C’mon, it’s a classic.  So what if Guinness is the “vanilla” of the stout world?  Ben & Jerry’s has dozens of flavors and yet they always have vanilla.

Of course, I never order vanilla at ice cream shops either because who wants vanilla ice cream?

It’s just so common and plain.  Multitudes of things have vanilla varieties – yogurts, cookies, cereals, sodas, even alcohols.  Then there are the candles, lotions, air fresheners, and body washes.  If there are multiple flavors or scents available for a product, it is likely one of them is vanilla.

Vanilla has become synonymous with “plain” and in contexts other than just flavors.  A “vanilla” person has a conventional and unadventurous personality type.  A “vanilla” computer game is the original game with no expansions or extras.  It can be used to describe anything that is boring, modest, basic, or simple.

But vanilla hasn’t always had such a boring reputation.  It was once worshiped by the Aztecs as a sacred plant, and when Cortes brought it back to Europe in the 1520s it quickly became one of Spain’s hottest commodities.

Europe’s demands were mainly exported from Mexico because it was difficult to cultivate in non-native regions as it required pollination from a local bee species not found in Europe.  The exotic origin of the plant and the difficulty in its growth and acquisition made it all the more desirable and prestigious.

According to the Totonac, an early civilization that lived in Mexico, the vanilla plant sprung the blood of two beheaded lovers, an immortal princess and the mortal she was forbidden to marry.

In the mid 19th century, the invention of hand-pollination allowed the plant to be cultivated anywhere and global production began. But even with production possible in non-native regions, it was still a labor-intensive process: the flower will die within hours after blooming if not pollinated, the pods grow for 9+ months, and then curing processes take several more months.

Even after vanilla production increased, its price and demand, and therefore prestige, stayed high.

So what changed?  When did “vanilla” stop being a widely sought exotic spice and become the bland flavor we see it as today?

Vanilla first came to America when Thomas Jefferson brought it as an ice cream flavoring from France.  Though the flavor was exotic, it is possible it began to acquire it’s “plain” reputation here: Ice cream was commonly flavored with nuts and berries, so although the flavor was exotic, it’s white, plain, smooth texture must have seemed very plain in comparison.

A portion of Thomas Jefferson’s personal vanilla ice cream recipe.

However it is more likely that the high popularity of vanilla is what caused its slow progression towards anonymity and blandness. Vanilla was such a great spice that it was used for everything, but once it was available everywhere it ceased to be special.

Most things now aren’t even made with real vanilla anymore, but rather vanillin.  Vanillin is the main compound in natural vanilla, but while real vanilla extract also contains hundreds of other compounds, imitation vanilla is mainly all vanillin.

Production of vanillin, which started as a profitable use for certain by-products of the paper making industry, further led to widescale use of “vanilla” as a flavoring, where it eventually faded to a background or complimentary flavor.  Now it seems vanilla needs a special flavor partner to really grab one’s eye – Vanilla Java, Vanilla Caramel, Vanilla Toffee, Vanilla Rum, the list goes on.

But it still holds true that vanilla is the one flavor you can get anywhere, so why get it (insert name of the next bakery or ice cream shop you visit)?  Because really, who is famous for their vanilla ice cream? Or their pastries with vanilla frosting?

But who knows, maybe its absence from the food spotlight for a while will respark our love of vanilla. Maybe when chocolate goes out of style?

Although I doubt that’s ever happening.

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“That doesn’t look very scary. More like a six-foot turkey.”

One of the things I enjoy saying the most about my experience with wildlife rehabilitation is that I have worked with raptors – birds of prey like owls, hawks, and falcons. They are amazing, interesting birds but I’ll admit that part of that fun is that when people hear “raptor” they often imagine this:

This association is probably partly due to the blockbuster “Jurassic Park” and other dinosaur movies. A major theme of the film, and one that I love as a student of evolutionary anthropology, is demonstration of the bird-dinosaur relationship. The species Compsognathus is described as walking chicken-like, and the final scene of Jurassic Park shows a flock of birds flying from Isla Nublar and the dinosaurs that dwell on it. After Dr. Alan Grant is laughed at for stating that dinosaurs obviously became birds, he retorts with this:

“Well, maybe dinosaurs have more in common with present-day birds than they do with reptiles. Look at the pubic bone: turned backward, just like a bird. Look at the vertebrae: full of airsacs and hollows, just like a bird. And even the word ‘raptor’ means ‘bird of prey.’”

However, this quote implies that there was foresight in the naming of both birds of prey and certain dinosaurs “raptors” because birds are the evolutionary descendants of some dinosaur species. But the way in which language evolves through translation and interpretation means one cannot assume that the naming intentional. And in terms of the history of the knowledge of evolution, this naming was actually more of a coincidence.

The word “raptor” comes from a Latin verb rapere “to seize by force”. Birds of prey are called raptors because of they way they hunt, seizing their prey out of the air, and Websters dictionary first defined birds of prey as raptors in 1823.

The term “velociraptor”, and other species containing the suffix -raptor, probably originated in scientific literature around 1924. They were so named because velox means “swift” and so velociraptors were thought to be speedy predators who seized their prey.

However, both of these groups received their designation as “raptor” long before paleontologists were able to link birds as the descendants of dinosaurs. The evidence of the bird-dinosaur evolutionary lineage was not concretely supported until the 1980s when dinosaur phylogeny was more fully understood with increasing knowledge of genetics, phylogeny, and evolution.

Assuming that the two share a name because they share an ancestor is a false cause logical fallacy, meaning that a false assumption is made when one believes a relationship seen between two things automatically implies one caused the other.  In fact birds of prey and some dinosaur species were named before their evolutionary relationship was understood and so their name was more a convenient coincidence of word choice.

If early orinthologists had decided that birds of prey didn’t seize their prey but rather grabbed, snatched, clasped, clutched, or caught them, the Latin translation never would have matched the dinosaur term that came later.

“Scientists, especially those who are Catholics, will by their research establish the truth of the Church’s claim”

Pope Francis has recently said, to the outrage of the more traditional followers of the Catholic Church, that Church teachings have focused too heavily on matters of homosexuality, abortion, and birth control. However, his personal stance and the official stance of the Church, still oppose use of contraceptives except in extreme cases where they are used to address another medical issue.

Not surprising, as this has been the view of the Church since Pope Paul VI outlawed the use of oral contraceptives in 1968. What may be surprising to some however, is that the pill was sanctioned for a brief time by the Church and its very development and design were intended to merit the approval of the Catholic Church.

John Rock was a strongly devout man. He was also a pioneer in sperm cell preservation and in-vitro fertilization, and was a major developer and proponent of oral contraceptives. And he wholeheartedly believed that his work in the development of the birth control pill was “perfectly compatible” with his faith in the Catholic Church.

But he was by no means a radical proponent of women’s reproductive rights – he was traditional minded in many ways and a conservative who still opposed the admittance of women to medical schools. But he supported birth control because as a doctor he saw the necessity of preventing pregnancy in ill patients and for families who could not afford more mouths to feed.

The complicated chart used to help women determine their periods of infertility according to the Rhythm Method, "Nature's Method"

The complicated chart used to help women determine their periods of infertility according to the Rhythm Method, “Nature’s Method”

However, in the field of contraception, he was radical.  He boldly signed a petition to repeal the Massachusetts ban on sale of contraceptives (1931) and later was the first medical doctor to open a Rhythm method clinic in Boston (1936). At the time, the rhythm method was the only contraceptive sanctioned by the Church because it was a “natural” method of regulating procreation, unlike other methods which killed sperm (spermicides) or disrupted natural biological processes (vasectomies).

The pill works by providing women with a constant dose of Progestin, a synthetic version of Progesterone.  Progesterone is a hormone released during pregnancy to prevent the release of more eggs which may threaten the current pregnancy. The pill therefore was an arguable extension of nature by duplicating what already happens naturally, but more often and consistently.  This was the logic with which Rock believed the pill would be approved by the Church.  Plus, to its credit, the pill regulated women’s cycles and could be used as a aid to the rhythm method.

However, the design of the pill contains one aspect which is biologically unnecessary – a week of placebo pills which enable menstruation to occur.  Ironically, this aspect is present only to satisfy the whims of Church approval.

Menstruation occurs because ovulation produces an egg and the lining of the uterus becomes flooded with blood and nutrients in expectation of fertilization. If fertilization does not occur, the swollen endometrium is shed. The pill prevents ovulation all together. No ovulation means no swelling, and no need for the menstrual shedding.  

There is no medical reason why women should have to have the week of placebo pills which allow menstruation. Yet it is found in nearly all birth control regimens, for two reasons:

  1. It was Rock’s belief that women who took the pill will feel safer and more natural if they still had their monthly cycles.
  2. By providing women with a reliable cycle of menstruation, it technically aided in the rhythm method (though the method is unnecessary with the pill).  If the pill aided in an already acceptable form of birth control, logically, one could go one step further and say the pill itself was pre-sanctioned by the Church.

Unfortunately, only 8 years after the first birth control pill was released for mass purchase, the Church rejected it and banned its use.  And Catholic women are still stuck fighting for their own reproductive rights today.

“Diets, like clothes, should be tailored to you”

Fad diets, as their name suggests, are easy-to-follow and trendy diets focused more on short-term success than long-term maintenance of health and weight. Focus is usually placed on eliminating or emphasizing a particular food group for health benefits.

However these diets tend to be difficult and sometimes even dangerous to follow for long periods of time. The Paleo Diet is considered by many to be a fad diet, which I why I was surprised that it is still a somewhat prevalent.

The Paleo Diet, short for Paleolithic Diet, is based on the diet of the early humans (called hominids) which lived during the Paleolithic era of 2.5 million years ago to 10 thousand years ago. It is believed to follow the general “ancestral human diet”.

It claims that humans are most adapted to the diet of their Paleolithic ancestors – fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, roots, nuts, and wild game. Therefore sugars, salts, oils, and grains and vegetables which came about during the Agricultural Revolution are discouraged.

The claim of the Paleo Diet is that natural selection has not strongly acted on humans since the rise of agriculture, thus humans are maladjusted to the modern diets which they now consume. Hunter-gatherer societies, which still follow the basic ancestral human diets, have overall lower prevalence of disease.

By this reasoning, foods which humans are considered ill-adapted for are partly responsible for the increasing rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and even cancer.  To help avoid the diseases caused by the “modern affluent diet”, humans should follow the Paleo Diet and avoid modern foods.

But, while abstaining from excesses of sugar and oil is beneficial to human health, the actual scientific reasoning behind the Paleo Diet is shaky at best.

1. Lifestyle is a major factor in any diet, not just the Paleo Diet

The lifestyle that the Paleo Diet promotes is itself healthy – growing or hunting one’s own food, and not eating in excess are healthy additions to any diet protocol.  The main bulk of the health advantages stemming not from what hunter-gatherer peoples actually eat, but how they live, and their diets are a result of their culture.

Basically, hunter-gatherers are more active and tend to consume fresher foods because they must acquire it for themselves.  Any modern American who hunts and gathers their own food will surely already lead a more active lifestyle and is also less likely to consume processed foods and junk food, whether or not they are following the textbook Paleo Diet.

However, the changes that have occurred among urban societies, even in the past century or so, have made following a hunter-gatherer lifestyle next-to-impossible.

2. The Paleo Diet assumes human evolution abruptly stopped at the rise of agriculture

The assumption that humans have not changed or adapted to their environment in the past 10,000 years ignores everything we know about evolutionary change. If adaptation comes naturally over time, why should change suddenly stop? While it is true that natural selection may be acting less on populations now with modern medicine and more consistent food sources, but fluctuations in population genetics are always present.

Furthermore, there is evidence that rapid changes have occurred in human populations since the rise of agriculture, and the evolution of lactose tolerance is a good example. A few thousand years ago there was an increased interest in animal husbandry in human populations, which led to more access to dairy products like cheese and milk. Early humans naturally lost lactose tolerance after weaning, but populations with access to dairy have since evolved a genetic ability to continue to digest lactose into adulthood and therfore retain the ability to acquire nourishment from dairy products.

3. Humans are opportunistic omnivores and are designed to eat a variety of diets

The premise of the Paleo Diet is that humans are specifically adapted to a certain diet and are maladjusted to consuming different diets, which has already been proven false by the evidence of change in lactose tolerance. Furthermore, this assumes that all early human groups ate the same diet, which is wildly blind to the fact that human populations arose all over the world and couldn’t possibly have eaten the same foods. And anthropologists can never be sure of the exact diet of any ancient group because it would have been widely variable based on location, season, and food availability.

Furthermore, the fact that humans only had access to certain foods during their evolutionary history doesn’t automatically mean that they aren’t capable of eating other things.

4. Diet alone cannot guarantee health

There is no specific relationship between genotype (one’s genes) and phenotype (one’s physical traits), so even if humans were specifically adapted for a certain diet, genes are not the only factors which influence final health, and environment and early development can have equally strong impacts later in life.  Hormones, musculature, and metabolism, among other factors, mean that some people will naturally weigh more or less no matter the diet they follow.

So, while the reasoning and science behind the Paleo Diet seems inaccurate at best, this isn’t to say that it can’t be beneficial to one’s health to follow some of the suggestions it makes. However, strictly following the Paleo Diet based on the belief that you are eating as ancestral humans did won’t be anymore beneficial than any other fad diet out there.

“Simpson, Homer Simpson, he’s the greatest guy in history!”

I’ve been on a recent Simpsons kick lately – and by “recent” kick, I mean I’m working my way through all the episodes ever made – so far, I’ve watched Seasons 1-12 of 24 (25 starts in less than a month!)

To celebrate the half-way point of my progress, I decided to compile a list of my 12 favorite episodes thus far. This does not mean I think these are the best written or the most iconic episodes, merely the ones that stood out to me as being exceptionally funny, witty, and entertaining.

1. Marge Vs. the Monorail

Season 4, Episode 12
Celebrity Guest Stars: Leonard Nimoy

Highlight: The songs – opening spoof of The Flintstones theme song, and the “The Monorail Song” as a parody of the Music Man’s “Trouble”.

2. Last Exit to Springfield

Season 4, Episode 17
Celebrity Guest Stars: Dr. Joyce Brothers

Highlight: Homer becoming the newest Union Leader and misconstruing Mr. Burns’ strike negotiations as sexual advances.

3. A Streetcar Named Marge

Season 4, Episode 2
Celebrity Guest Stars: Jon Lovitz

Highlight: Tie between Ned Flanders as Stanley in the musical production of “Streetcar Named Desire” and Maggie’s daycare escape parody of The Great Escape.

4. 30 Minutes over Tokyo

Season 10, Episode 23
Celebrity Guest Stars: George Takei, Karen Maruyama

Highlight: The Simpson family participating in a spoof Japanese Game Show called “The Happy Smile Super Challenge Family Wish Show“.

The Episode never aired in Japan because the scene where Homer throws the Japanese Emperor into a dumpster of sumo thongs was considered disrespectful and offensive.

5. Duffless

Season 4, Episode 16
Celebrity Guest Stars: None

Highlight: Homer having to give up alcohol for a month after Marge determines he has a drinking problem.

Marge: “Homer, do you ever drink alone?”
Homer: “Does the Lord count as a person?

Also, this reference to A Clockwork Orange:

6. Kamp Krusty

Season 4, Episode 1
Celebrity Guest Stars: None

Highlight: Bart trying to score good final grades by returning all of his books in excellent condition, “in some cases, still in their original wrappings!”.

7. Lisa the Simpson

Season 9, Episode 17
Celebrity Guest Stars: None

Highlight: The scientific explanation that the defective “Simpson gene” lies only on the Y chromosome.

8. Treehouse of Horror IV

Season 5, Episode 5
Celebrity Guest Stars: Frank Welker

Highlight: So many. The fact that Ned Flanders shows up as the Devil in the short “The Devil and Homer Simpson” because “Its always the one you least expect“, or that the Devil and Bart casually greet each other as acquaintances, or that Homer can’t fit through the Portal to Hell.  And that’s just the first third of the episode.

9. The City of New York Vs. Homer Simpson

Season 9, Episode 1
Celebrity Guest Stars: Joan Kenley

Highlight: The Broadway show about The Betty Ford Clinic.

10 . Tales from Public Domain

Season 13, Episode 14
Celebrity Guest Stars: None

Highlight: The epic story choices – The Odyssey, Joan of Arc, and Hamlet.  And Ned Flanders as the King of Troy.

Ned (Upon receiving the wooden Trojan Horse): Now throughout history, when people get wood, they’ll think of Trojans!

11. You Only Move Twice

Season 8, Episode 2
Celebrity Guest Stars: Albert Brooks

Highlight: Homer unknowingly working for a supervillian named Scorpio and tackling Secret Agent James Bont, who is trying to stop the evil plans.

12. Weekend at Burnsie’s

Season 13, Episode 16
Celebrity Guest Stars: Phish

Highlight: Homer becoming the alpha male in a murder of crows.

———————————————————-

While I start research on the second half of this project, I recommend watching the honorable mention, a Treehouse of Horror short narrated by James Earl Jones: “The Raven”. (click on the picture below for the full video)

Quoth the Raven "eat my shorts"

Quoth the Raven “eat my shorts”

“Who was the fool, who the wise, who the beggar, or the emperor?”

Living during the Dark Ages, as the name suggests, was quite a struggle – plague and famine was rampant, wars and persecutions were common, and the medicine of the time could be worse than the condition it sought to cure. Science and technology of the time could do nothing to prevent this, and people simply had to accept the dangers of day-to-day Medieval life.

"The Triumph of Death" Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1562

“The Triumph of Death”
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1562

This created an understandable gloom and the uncertainty of daily survival lead to constant forced confrontations with morbidity and death. But out of this fear, people were inspired to live in the moment, and accepting death as natural and inevitable allowed it to become an artistic source.

Themes such as the universality of death and the uselessness of vanity were common, and were demonstrated most strongly in Le Danse Macabre, an artistic genre of Medieval Europe. It focused on the understanding that treasures and worldly possessions were useless after death, and that life was a fragile gift. Furthermore, without this vanity and wealth, everyone is equal in death.

One of my favorite products of this genre is the graveyard soliloquy in Hamlet, where Hamlet ponders the possibility that the remains of great men such as Alexander and Caesar may now be present in the mud used to seal buildings and barrels.  When Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick, he then comments:

“Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint her face an inch thick, yet to this favor she must come”
Hamlet, Act V, Scene I

The most common expression of this genre is a dancing skeleton leading victims to their graves – the dancers come from all walks of life, but having been stripped of worldly goods, they enter the next world together as equals.

But these images should not be taken as being particularly dark or imply that Medieval culture was death-obsessed.  Rather, they come from an understanding and acceptance about the nature of life and death.

Beyond reminding people to cherish life, constant reminders of the inevitability of death can turn one’s thoughts to the afterlife. With the feeling of death all around, both literally and in the art and literature of the time, there was an increased desire for religious absolution and preparation of one’s soul.

The emptiness of earthly treasures combined with the frailty of life might work to turn one’s thoughts to the future and the afterlife.  This in turn may encourage people to focus more on faith and piety for a permanent, and more important, existence after death.

Le danse macabre belongs to a larger genre known as memento mori, literally meaning “remember that you will die”.

Supposedly this phrase comes from a tradition during a Roman Triumphal Parade: a conquering general would march his legion, as well as captured treasures and slaves, through Rome in a glorious parade to demonstrate his greatness.  But all the while a servant would constantly utter something along the lines of “memento mori” as a way of keeping him humble even during one of his greatest moments.

In modern times, one may find a parallel in the Catholic practice of Ash Wednesday, which is celebrated as a day of mourning, repentance, and a reminder of mortality. An observer receives a mark of ash, sometimes a cross, upon their forehead while a priest repeats a famous line from scripture noting the inevitability of death.

“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return”
Genesis 3:19

But beyond practices and scripture, art too could turn man’s thoughts toward death and therefore piety. Michelangelo’s fresco “The Last Judgment” did just this when it was originally revealed in 1541. Centuries before television and movies could provide a rich visual source for emotions to feed off and fears to take form, paintings and sculptures served this purpose.

The image, located directly behind the altar, focuses on Christ’s Second Coming and the Judgment of all mankind. Saints and the Virgin Mary hover with Christ along with the pure souls that rise to Heaven, while demons and monsters drag the guilty to hell. People are skinned, burned, beaten, and consumed by serpents in a general atmosphere of chaos and fear. Even the Saints and Mary, who sit safely among Christ, seem fearful of the display below them.

The painting was perceived as being so terrifying and so real that it was meant to inspire fear, and faith, in all who saw it. Legend says that Pope Paul III, who commissioned it, was so filled with fear upon seeing it that he fell on his knees and exclaimed “Don’t charge me with my sins when you come on Judgment Day!

One can only imagine the fear that this painting might instill, if during a sermon the only place to gaze is upon it, while the world outside is filled with death, famine, war, and disease. I probably would have paid a little closer attention to the sermon too.

"What does my praying avail me now? I must step into the dead's dance"

“What does my praying avail me now? I must step into the dead’s dance”

“Now I have – against knight's order – become coerced to this dance”

“Now I have – against knight’s order – become coerced to this dance”

“Now I must dance and can’t yet walk”

For a full translation of these images, plus many more images, click here.

“Emperor, your sword won’t help you out
Scepter and crown are worthless here
I’ve taken you by the hand
For you must come to my dance”

Unknown, ~1460

“And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world”

The infamous outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century was one of the worst epidemics in human history, killing 30-60% of the population of Europe.  It caused such an impact that if the world’s population over time is charted, one can clearly see the decline caused by the pestilence, and it took decades for the population to recover from this devastating blow.

After the wave of Black Death slowed, there continued to be major outbreaks for centuries and even now plague is present in most of the world, causing hundreds of cases a year.

Before the Black Death there was the Plague of Justinian in the mid 500s, and after it was the London Plague in the mid 1600s.  But the medieval outbreak of the mid 1300s was by far the worst.  It seemed no one was safe and people died so quickly it was said that there wasn’t time to bury the dead.  This unsanitary situation only propagated the disease further.

“How many valiant men, how many fair ladies breakfast with their kinsfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world?!”
-Giovanni Boccaccio

It strongly impacted human population growth for years, but beyond this it also led to major political, cultural, and religious upheavals in Europe as society tried to cope with the devastation which surrounded it.

The Bubonic plague, also called the “Black Death” because it caused lymph nodes and extremities to necrotize and turn black, is a disease transmitted through the bacterium called Yersinia pestis. It arrived in Europe from Asian trade ships, carried by fleas and rats.

Yersinia pestis

Yersinia pestis

However, at the time of the Medieval outbreak, little was known about bacteria and disease transmission. Instead, it was believed that a disease was caused by spirits or demons. An early belief about the Black Death was that it was a plague sent by God to punish Europe for descending into sinful ways.

A related, but more secular, theory was Miasma – the idea that diseases were spread by bad air and bad smells. Therefore breathing the same air as an infected individual could spread the disease, as could foul-smelling things.  While there is a bit of truth in this, as airborne plague infections are possible, this theory suggested that anything which smelled bad could cause disease.

Miasma inspired the traditional image of the Medieval Plague doctor with a “beaked mask” because the mask was meant to hold strong smelling herbs and oils to block the smell of decay and therefore block transmission of the disease.

Well, obviously this didn’t work.

Doctors got infected just as often as everyone else. Monks and priests were also at especially high risk because they took care of the sick, buried the dead, and were constantly exposed. The commoners started to notice that even the servants of God were getting sick in the so-called time of judgment. This led to two things:

  1. people began to believe they were not merely being punished, but that the Apocalypse was coming
  2. people began to question the Church’s authority and power because it failed to protect them

The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the harbingers of the world’s end, are named Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. During medieval times, a common portrayal of the Horseman of Pestilence was a horse with black spots, perhaps as a reference to the Black Death and a prophecy of future events.

When people began to believe that the Church could not protect itself, they feared the Church could not protect them or prepare them for the rapture. Faith in traditional churches started to crumble and radical Catholic groups which promised salvation in a new way began to rise.

One of these groups were the Flagellants, a militant and radical sect of the Catholic Church that believed self-mutilation was a form of penance. This was usually done publicly along with chanting and singing. This group was outlawed by the church as it superseded the basic Church teaching that Jesus’ death removed all need for sacrifice by mankind.

Nevertheless, these alternate forms of worship were used by people who were dissatisfied with the Church as a form of protest, but it was also a last resort when the Church failed them. The popularity of the Flagellants and other similar groups wavered over time, but the era of the Black Death marked the highest membership in cult history.

 Xenophobia also rose with suspicion and fear, and in terror the afflicted masses sought for a scapegoat.  With wavering faith in the Church, religious leaders began to panic and tried to keep order by shifting the blame to anyone they could: Jews, lepers, witches, pagans, minorities, beggars, foreigners, and even widows.

Due to their isolation within cities, because of location (the Jewish ghettos were typically far from docks and city centers) and culture (Jews followed much stricter sanitary laws than most of the population), the prevalence of disease was much lower among Jewish populations.  This was noticed by those suffering and people became suspicious.  Jews were often accused of poisoning wells and there was a mass persecution of Jewish communities for years to come.

Jews being burned alive as part of Medieval persecutions

Jews being burned alive as part of Medieval persecutions in response to plague

In Northern Europe (where the Jewish population was lower) widows and old women suspected of witchcraft were seen as a strong threat.  A common metaphor for a plague infection striking a village was the arrival of an old hag in black robes. If she brought a broom with her, the whole village was “swept away”. But if she only brought a rake then some of the village would survive being hit by the pestilence.

The Church and society as a whole also suffered from the sheer loss of manpower – laborers were especially susceptible to disease, causing a labor shortage which led to a food shortage.  Within the Church, the loss of faith and also the loss of monks and priests who contracted the disease at higher rates than most of the population, caused a decline in current and future numbers of men entering the service of the Church.

Although the major outbreaks of plague during the Middle Ages only lasted about 5 years, it took human populations decades to recover and effects on the culture echoed for centuries after the initial outbreak as a constant reminder of the fear and panic that had once swept through all of Europe and Europe did not emerge from the Dark Ages until over a hundred years later at the birth of the Renaissance.